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Frustrated Low-Wage Workers Slap Down $15/Hr. Critics

November 11, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco 

Home health aides rally in Foley Square.
Home health aides rally in Foley Square.

New York, NY —  This week, home health care aides and other low-wage workers finding it increasingly harder to make ends meet welcomed Governor Cuomo’s move to establish a $15 an hour minimum wage across New York State, but they don’t necessarily want to wait the two to six years it could take for the new minimum wage to fully kick in — and they don't have patience for businesses who still say the glacial increase is happening too rapidly and will be too costly. 

“That’s one of the major problems because by the time it’s phased in, transportation, food and housing will be up, so it will be back to the same thing we’re getting now,” fast food worker Alvin Major told LaborPress prior to Tuesday’s Fight for $15 rally at Foley Square. “We need this money right now to catch up with the cost of living in New York City.”

Earlier legislation nudged New York’s minimum wage to $9 an hour by the end of the year. Governor Cuomo has already pushed a phased in $15 an hour minimum wage for fast food workers, but now has taken action to extend the same wage to the rest of the state’s workforce. 

“I’m not happy with waiting that long,” home health aide Patricia O’Hara said. “By 2018, we’re possibly going to need $25 an hour.” 

Tuesday's Fight for $15 rally and march to Wall Street was mirrored in cities across the United States. 

Fellow home health aide and 1199 SEIU member Diane Holmes said that the cost of living in New York City has gone up “tremendously” while wages have remained stagnant. 

“There’s no way we can feed our families,” Holmes said. “We take care of [everyone else’s family] but not being able to take care of our own families is a sin.”

Under the governor’s plan, New York City workers would see the minimum wage eventually rise to $15 an hour by 2019. Those outside Gotham would have to wait to 2021 to see the full increase. 

“The first installment is going to be a blessing to me because I’ve been living in poverty for so long that any extra money that I get will be very helpful,” said Rebecca Cornick, a Wendy’s worker who earns just $9 an hour after almost a decade on the job.

Many low-wage workers are so hard-pressed, they are forced to work second and third jobs in order to survive. Others, ranging from school crossing guards to airport baggage handlers, have turned to public assistance. 

“I work seven days a week,” O’Hara said. “I also waitress to supplement my income. I [even] work holidays sometimes just to make [enough] money.”

Lisa Johnson, a home health care aide and mother of four, lamented the slow phase in period outlined in Cuomo's plan to raise the minimum wage, but also sounded resigned to it.

“Unfortunately, that is a setback,” Johnson said. “But sometimes we have to take what we can get.”

Earlier this fall, a coalition of clergy leaders rallied in Harlem to call for a $20 an hour minimum wage. A report issued last year by the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement found that a $15 an hour minimum wage still falls short of the $32,432 annual income the group says a single adult needs to survive in New York City. 

Business leaders, nevertheless, have already begun galvanizing against Cuomo’s push for an across the board $15 an hour minimum wage. 

Mark Riley, 1199 SEIU press secretary, urged them to look at other cities around the nation that are prospering despite having raised the minimum wage.  

“Look at other cities that have already done it and ask yourselves if all this stuff about massive unemployment and businesses closing, whether any of that’s happened — and the fact is, the answer is no,” Riley said. 

If there is pain to be absorbed, low-wage workers insist they simply do not have the capacity to sustain any more of it. 

“New York City is one of the most expensive cities in the world,” Johnson said. “We work hard and we deserve to be able to take care of our families without taking on second jobs. What we do is hard work and we deserve to be paid appropriately.”

Major insisted that businesses can, indeed, afford to pay workers a living wage. 

“I spent some time in Denmark, and Denmark is paying McDonald’s workers $21 U.S. dollars,” he said. “If they can do it in Denmark, they can do it right here.”

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